Europe Politics

Spain and Morocco in diplomatic crisis after 8,000 migrants enter Spanish territory

Key Points
  • A diplomatic rift has deepened between Spain and Morocco after thousands of undocumented migrants attempted to enter Spanish territory in the northern African country.
  • Spain has been left scrambling to secure its borders after thousands of migrants entered Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves situated on the northern coast of Morocco this week.
Spanish police tries to disperse migrants at border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on May 18, 2021 in Fnideq.
FADEL SENNA | AFP | Getty Images

A diplomatic rift has deepened between Spain and Morocco after thousands of undocumented migrants attempted to enter Spanish territory apparently unimpeded by the Moroccan authorities.

Spain has been left scrambling to secure its borders after thousands of migrants entered Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves on the northern coast of Morocco this week.

Around 8,000 migrants, including families, are reported to have entered Ceuta on Monday and Tuesday, many entering the territory by swimming around border fences in the sea that separate the enclave from Morocco, as well as reports of migrants using inflatables and dinghies. At least one person was reported to have died during the crossing.

The influx of migrants prompted Spain to deploy armed forces to secure the beach and to increase a police presence in the enclaves. A smaller number of migrants also tried to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla further along the coast, according to the Spanish government. Around half of the 8,000 migrants, who were mostly Moroccan according to the BBC, have been returned to Morocco, Spanish authorities said.

Nonetheless, the arrivals have provoked a diplomatic spat between Spain and Morocco, particularly following reports and footage that seemed to show the Moroccan authorities allowing migrants to attempt to enter Ceuta without trying to stop them.

CNBC has contacted the Moroccan Foreign Ministry for comment but is yet to receive a reply.

Migrants swim towards the beach of Tarajal from Morocco, as others already on the Spanish side walk along the beach on May 17, 2021 in Ceuta, Spain.
Europa Press News | Europa Press | Getty Images

Ceuta and Melilla have been under Spanish rule since the 17th century, although Morocco has claimed the territories as its own since its independence in 1956. Some believe that the current tension between Spain and Morocco stems from Spain accepting Brahim Ghali, the leader of Western Sahara's Polisario Front, which wants independence from Moroccan administration for Western Sahara, to be admitted to a hospital in Spain for treatment last month, angering Rabat.

Morocco reportedly withdrew its ambassador for talks with Madrid after Spain's foreign minister told the envoy of her "disgust" at what had happened, the BBC reported Tuesday.

'Crisis for Spain, and also for Europe'

The EU has expressed its support for Spain although the latest incident — one of thousands of attempts by migrants to enter European territory in recent years — has served only to emphasize the porousness of the EU's borders and a lack of unified EU action on migration.

It is also another demonstration of the continuing desperation of migrants trying to enter the bloc seeking economic opportunity or refuge from conflict, poverty and human rights abuses.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the "EU stands in solidarity with Ceuta & Spain" and that the bloc needs "common EU solutions to migration management."

"This can be achieved with agreement on the New Pact on Migration. Stronger partnerships based on mutual trust and joint commitments with key partners like Morocco are crucial," she said.

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez puts on his mask after making a statement at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, on May 18, 2021.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson also tweeted that "the most important thing now is that Morocco continues to commit to prevent irregular departures" adding that "Spanish borders are European borders. The European Union wants to build a relationship with Morocco based on trust and shared commitments. Migration is a key element in this regard."

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez met with other Spanish government officials on Tuesday at which they discussed what the government described as a "serious crisis for Spain, and also for Europe."

There, Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said "what has occurred ... is an attack on our borders, and that cannot be part of good relations with Morocco, but we will continue to maintain them because we are neighboring and close countries." 

Spain said its priority "is to guarantee traffic control on the border with Morocco" and to provide the cities of Ceuta and Melilla "with all the necessary means to solve the humanitarian crisis caused by the arrival of so many people and proceed with the return of any person who has entered Ceuta and Melilla irregularly, as is foreseen in the agreements signed for years by Spain and Morocco."

Sanchez visited Ceuta and Melilla on Tuesday, having vowed to restore "order to the city and its borders."

Earlier Tuesday, Sanchez had tweeted that his priority was to "restore normalcy to Ceuta."

"Its citizens must know that they have the absolute support of the Government of Spain and the utmost firmness to ensure their safety and defend their integrity as part of the country against any challenge."